Country music is dead…and that’s okay with me!   Leave a comment


 Scattered thoughts about music while on vacation…and after

Recently, I was very fortunate to go on vacation with my wife to a destination we had both- but mostly me- longed to visit, Greece. While I’ve never previously visited Europe, I had developed an affinity for Greece through an interest in mythology that can be traced back to elementary school. Years of casual study, including a first-year university course in Greek Mythology and teaching of ancient Greece to middle schoolers, had instilled in me an appreciation of Greece, its art, history, geography, and mythology.

Nothing prepared me for this experience. A land of photographic beauty, the reality of Greece is even more impressive. Sweeping coastlines and seemingly arid orchards are the introduction to a land where the word history actually means something. Seeing monuments, artifacts, statues, frescoes, and walkway mosaics hundreds and thousands of years old was entirely impressive. And the food! My gosh, some of it was wonderful, delicately seasoned and simply prepared.

So, what has all of this got to do with country music? I’m not sure what this piece is going to look like when finished even after thinking about it and mentally outlining it for a month. But I’m going to try to demonstrate the importance of music in my life, how it never leaves my mind for an extended period, what I love about a simple country song, and my disappointment with the current and long-lasting state of commercial country music.

Since the time I was a bit more than ten, I think I’ve known that music would have significance in my life, that I think about it more than and in different ways than other people. Not better, just different. To me music is important and is seldom in the background. For me, music is to be absorbed, digested, and appreciated.

Like many others of my generation- and likely prior and subsequent ones- I can remember sitting up late at night attempting to tape the hits of the day off of the radio. I clearly remember attempting to record favoured selections of the 630 CHED 100 songs of 1975 on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. “Bad Blood” by Neil Sedaka was number one, I believe. I think Elton John’s “Island Girl” was on there as well. “Listen to What the Man Said,” still my favourite Wings song, was also captured on a frequently reused BASF cassette and I seem to remember “Fly, Robin, Fly” on there as well.

What I think may have been different from the experience of others involved in similar pursuits was my frustration at missing the first note or two of songs. Realize, I’ve got a little rectangular box of a cassette player propped up against little more than a clock radio speaker- and I’m getting pissed because I’m missing some of the intro notes to AM broadcast songs. Fidelity was obviously not the issue or concern! I think my frustration was because I recognized that the entire song was important, and those initial notes were vital to my future appreciation of the songs. I’m not sure most other eleven year olds worried about such things. Maybe I’m mistaken, but in my circle of street hockey players, I’m certain I was the only one involved in such activity.

From this early attempt at making a mix tape, I started acquiring singles and albums. Frequently at the expense of my older brothers, I started a wee collection of recordings- a 45 of the previously mentioned Wings song, Olivia Newton John’s country singles, one by the Hans Staymer Band, “Hello Central (Give Me Doctor Music)” that I think I still have in a box downstairs. The first albums I bought were 25 cent school-garage sale finds- Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s Déjà Vu and Every Picture Tells a Story. I played the heck out of those albums and realize now that possibly the first place I heard a mandolin was on that Rod Stewart album.

The first album I bought from a store was a KC & the Sunshine Band compilation; I wish I could claim it was something more impressive, perhaps Guy Clark’s first album or a Townes Van Zandt, but I can’t. The first country music 45 I recall buying- and it may not have been the first, but it would have been one of the first- was “Teddy Bear’s Last Ride” by Diana Williams. I was actually looking for the Red Sovine song and thought this was it; turned out I was wrong, but it did impact me and was maybe the first time I realized songs could have ‘answer’ recordings. Yes, it was a manipulative, wimpy arse song, but it made me tear up every time I listened to it.

I’ve always been a sucker for a sad song. The first songs I remember singing all the way through were tear-jerkers from the 60s- “Leader of the Pack,” “Last Kiss,” and especially “Teen Angel.” I remember doing chores on the farm and belting out the words- accurate or not- while struggling with buckets of chop. Since we left the farm when I was eight, I know I was doing this at an age many kids may have been singing nursery rhymes. And, with reflection, I’ve come to accept that those songs and ones like them- “Patches,” “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia,” and “The Night Chicago Died”- were in many ways the nursery rhymes of childhood. Explains a little about my future twistedness.

So, we’ve established I’m a music geek and have been for a long, long time. I’m okay with that. It is the way I am. But, getting back to the Greek holiday, it was this trip that (again) brought to the fore the depth of my obsession with music. So, skipping ahead thirty or so years…

The realization is refreshed. It may have been when I was nodding off in the sun in Greece, surrounded by German, Polish, and Russian tourists, and the surf started singing to me the refrain: ich lieb dich nicht du liebst mich nicht aha aha aha. I knew why “Da Da Da“ was in my head- I had recently placed it on a mixed disc I made in anticipation of the flight to Greece- but that the surf would bring it to mind was a little disturbing.

Or it may have been on the same Cretan beach when a six- or seven-year old Romanian kid started banging out “Rock and Roll High School“ on two stones picked up off of the sand. Not just once, but repeatedly, keeping the beat perfectly timed so that, in my head, I’m singing, “Rock, rock…rock and roll high school.“ The rhythm maintained was lively, smooth, and welcome, and I can’t help but believe that I was witnessing a primal connection that started long before the brothers from Queens.

I am definitely not like other people. I find music everywhere, even in the surf and in spontaneous rock slapping. And the lengths I’ll go to acquire music, and the way I worry about music, is a bit disturbing. I took a thumb drive with me on this holiday for one reason- so I wouldn’t miss one of the download offers off of Steve Forbert’s website. Every few weeks, and sometimes every few days, Forbert’s webmaster posts a live song or two at steveforbert.com, and I didn’t want to miss one of the limited time offerings, as we are in the midst of the Pink Cassette songs from 1981. And I wasn’t disappointed, picking up a couple songs as well as a bonus of “Matchbox.“

I spent many hours preparing mixes for my Sony mini-disc player in anticiaption of the full days of traveling we would be spending getting to Toronto and Athens and back. I’m pretty sure no one has listened to Dale Ann Bradley while approaching Athens on a nine and a half hour leg from TO. And I’m glad I put together the recordings as I was able to make connections between songs I had never before noticed: Suzi Quatro’s “She Knows“ owes a bit to The Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t.“

My biggest and most obsessive thought while on the island of Crete was, “How will I recharge this thing (the mini-disc player) for the flight home?“ My initial attempts at using the adapter in our hotel room had not been successful, but I eventually got it charging. Crisis averted.

We go out for an evening of Cretan music and food at a country taverna (which turned out to be an open-air, mountain theatre) and notice that the bourzouki is buried too low in the mix for my taste, being dominated by an electric keyboard. And my initial response is to go speak to the guy on the soundboard…only there isn’t anyone on the soundboard and really, what were the odds anyone else cared? (From the amount of cheap wine all the tourists were drinking, I’m guessing not very likely!)

Amongst my most enjoyable hours on the trip was a morning and early afternoon wandering the streets of Fira on Santorini. We were due to leave the island late that afternoon, and with the temperature approaching 38 Celsius, my wife was uninterested in additional wandering. So, I set off- again, with the mini-disc going- for a solo exploration of an art gallery and maybe some lunch. John Cowan started me on my journey, but by the time I got to the walkways overlooking the Aegean, I was well into The Trinity Sessions Revisited. Turns out, the Cowboy Junkies are a good listening match to the blues, browns, and whites of Fira, as is Cry, Cry, Cry with Dar, Richard, and Lucy’s voices blending to provide an incongruent but somehow fitting soundtrack to the Greek isle. I sat in a little restaurant- The Flame of the Volcano- looking out over the harbour formed by the caldera eating mousaka, dolmades, and tzakziki with some nicely chilled white wine, listening to James Keelaghan’s ”Cold Missouri Waters“ and Buddy Mondlock’s “The Kid“ and realized that I was experiencing perfect moments. Perfect for me, anyways- others would likely have been bored stiff.

By the way, if ever on Santorini, visit The Flame of the Volcano- it is a nice little ‘mom and pop‘ place but is tricky to find- walk up the donkey stairs about thirty metres, and just when you think you have missed it, it is right there. Lovely stuff.

In Athens, I found a compact disc store of the like I haven’t experienced locally in years. Three stories of CDs along with additional floors of games, DVDs, and books. Metropolis was the name, and they had a huge selection of all types of music, with extra attention- it seemed- to the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I found things I had looked for without success- Sylvain Sylvain’s first album (paired with his second) for around $10 CDN- and could have spent hundreds of dollars on music without even trying. As it was, I controlled myself and limited my purchases to a few things I really ‘needed‘- the Sylvain disc, an Animals compilation, a copy of Think Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, and a Romeo Void 2fer.

So, all of these musicial moments led us back to the airport, and a ten-plus hour flight back to Toronto. And, in interest of saving the mini-disc batteries for later in the journey, I turned on the Transat in-flight music selections. I bopped along to an hour of disco early in the flight, even discovering a group I had heard of- The Gibson Brothers- but can’t remember hearing. “Cuba“ is a quality song. And then I thought, let’s give the country line-up a try.

I’ve attempted to listen to current country music any number of times over the past several years, on flights or during long drives. And it never works. But this time I tcommited myself to holding out for the full hour and actually listen to the music. Outside of a Nanci Griffith tune and a few predictable classics (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,“ “I Walk the Line,“ and “Your Cheatin‘ Heart“) I must say the picking were mighty grim. While the themes covered in the songs should appeal to someone like me- home, leaving home, growth, and doubt- I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to listen to drek from Doc Walker, Taylor Swift, Montgomery Gentry, Zac Brown, or Kid Rock when there are performers and songwriters such as Darrell Scott, the members of Drive By Truckers, Chris Knight, Kate Campbell, Gordie Tentrees, Fred Eaglesmith, Steve Forbert, and hundreds more recording music about the same matters, but so much more intensely and insightfully than the hacks I heard. I tried to listen, but shortlydug out the mini-disc player and lost myself in Rodney DeCroo.

This experience led me to think about sketching out a treatise on the demise of commercial country music as I know it. Imagine my surprise when I returned home and found just such a commentary within my email inbox from one of my favourite people. Tina Aridas is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, songwriter, and bluegrass music promoter who I met through the BGRASS-L. Being like-minded individuals, we normally agree on the state of things in our wee bluegrass world, share an appreciation for Nick Lowe, and loath the toady writing that too freqently passes as journalism- no matter how artfully written it is- within the bluegrass world. In mid-July, Tina fired one of her semi-frequent salvos into the din that is the L, with country music her target. Since Tina is several times the writer I’ll ever be, I’ll allow her thoughts in place of mine:

I don’t have cable TV, so I feel remote from popular culture. However, sometimes there’s a little time when I’m traveling to sit in front of the TV in the motel room and get a good dose of what’s on television. And my favorite place to go is CMT. Boy oh boy, is that fun or what? I spent an hour this past Friday night and in that whole hour I heard (and saw) not one song or performer who would pass for country music, in my opinion. It was all rock with guys in cowboy hats and boots singing songs about their roots and songs about how country girls are the best (with shots of girls who didn’t really look like what I’d think of as country girls, but who am I to say) and songs about how city girls like country boys, all the while posing in this very strange (and uncomfortable-looking) way, with one shoulder hunched a bit higher than the other, legs a bit bent and knees apart (sort of like they were riding a horse but with the horse missing), pointing with one or two fingers at the audience (or the camera). Very silly stuff. I heard songs by Kenny Chesney, Trace Adkins, Jason Aldean, and a couple of others I don’t remember, as well as female singers Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, Kelly Pirkle, Taylor Swift, and some others I can’t recall. Golly, there’s more country music in bluegrass music these days than there is in country music.

So, my question is: Am I missing something? Does anybody on bgrass-l think this stuff is country music?

And in those few sentences, Tina captured much of my thoughts. To answer her question, No- I don’t consider that country music. But I’ve also now come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter to most folks that the music they call ‘country’ isn’t country. Country music has changed, and has changed so radically that I don’t think we can ever go back. There will always (I hope) be a few rebels out there waving the flag- the Dallas Waynes, the Dale Watsons, the Robbie Fulkses, et al.- but for the majority of the population, the soft pop and retread rock currently labeled Country Music is just fine, thank you. Of course there is always bluegrass to fall back on, perhaps the last bastion of true country music, and the Americana alt.s and folkies populating the sidelines.

Sometime between those early Olivia and Teddy Bear singles and the time I walked away from commercial country music, I became interested in the history of the music. Beginning with some deleted Waylon and Jones albums, I started down the path of country music. Some paths peetered out rather quickly, such as my facsination with Charly McClain. Others just kept going and going, such as my journey from Emmylou, Carlene, and Rosanne which led to Guy, Rodney, and Skaggs. From Ricky Skaggs I went to Monroe and Marty Stuart, which led to Doc Watson and eventually Ralph Stanley. Guy Clark led to Townes and other Texas troubadours. Rosanne led back to Johnny Cash and eventually the Carter Family. And the dusty footsteps kept going and going. As I delved deeper into country music, the more I found to appreciate. 

 When did this decline in modern commercial country music start? Maybe with Brooks and Dunn? It doesn’t matter. The fight is over. We’ve lost. And please don’t think I’m just some tired old guy stuck in the 70s listening to his orange-label George Jones records. There was a time not too long ago when the majority of my CDs were commercial country- everyone from Randy Travis, Highway 101, and The Judds, to Jim Witter, Kathy Mattea, and Johnny Cash. Even in the past five years, I’ve continued to listen to buy country music albums if seldom listening to country radio. Albums by Alan Jackson, Gretchen Wilson, Mark Chesnutt, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Ian Tyson, the Dixie Chicks, and other ‘mainstream’ country artists have found their way onto my shelves, and I’ve enjoyed them. So I’m not pining for the past as much as lamenting the present.

There was a time when I listened to commercial country music and enjoyed it. I appreciated the sentiment of the songs, the mix of the instruments, and the expression that came through in heartfelt vocals. Yes, there was a great deal of the music that I couldn’t stand- John Michael Montgomery, anyone? Ty Herndon, perhaps? Lorrie Morgan and Faith Hill? But somewhere along the line about 1995, I started drifting away. The balance tipped and the ‘good’ no longer outweighed the gorb music.

But I fear the pendulum has swung so far the other way- to where Billy Ray Cyrus almost sounds ‘traditional’- that there is at least one generation and likely more out there who not only have no understanding of the roots of country music, but no interest in seeking such knowledge. To them, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, and Darius Rucker have as much country cred as necessary. That is, not much.

And I need to temper this with acknowledgement that what I consider ‘country music’- the Georges, Junes, Lorettas, Martys, Merles, and Ola Belles- stepped away from the music of the Roy Acuffs, Hank Williamses, and Maybelle Carters that preceded and influenced them. However, there was a cord that was maintained back then, connecting the musics. And that cord has become frayed and exists now as only the thinnest of threads. Would Roy Acuff recognize Lady Antebellum as compatriots? Somehow, I doubt it.

But that’s okay. Country music history is littered with those who took the industry by storm, and who faded away even more quickly. Anyone heard from Mindy McCreary, Diamond Rio, or Julia Roberts lately? So I feel safe in saying that folks who made part of my Athens to Toronto flight so miserable- Carrie Underwood, Tara Oram, Rascal Flatts, and their ilk- will soon fade away into a bad memory. And maybe, some day in the future there will come the time for another wave of fresh music to hit country music and country music radio. What did Steve Earle call it? The Great Credibility Scare of 1986? But that wave, which included Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and even Dwight Yoakum, didn’t sell enough records and quickly dissipated.

Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a splintering in the music that is of interest. Whereas once we thought of music as rock, country, folk, classical, soul, blues, and easy listening each of those genres now has various fissures within them. And as the music evolves and mutates, some sounds that develop are going to alienate a population of listeners, resulting in fewer people having a shared experience within the same music. I guess it makes sense that what is now considered commercial country could and has morphed into something I barely recognize as ‘country.’

That splintering has mirrored the increasing number of ways folks acquire or listen to music. Again, that shared experience of everyone in a community listening to one of three or four radio stations has been lost- and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing- and has been replaced by innumerable retail, illegal, on-line, and social networking means of hearing music.

Where does this leave me? I guess I’ll just have to continue the meandering journey that started all those years ago when I was learning “Joy to the World” and “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” on the bus ride home from school. I’ll graze the Internet for stations that play the music I want to hear- hey, WDVX!- until they are no longer allowed to broadcast internationally. I’ll continue to purchase the majority of my music digitally from a variety of vendors while supporting the retail outlets that continue to stock product of interest. I’ll catch live acts that come through the area as much as possible, and support them through my writing and purchases. I suppose I’ll eventually fall into the satellite radio world, where one can find channels that are a little more streamlined and allow a listener to be selective.

And, more than likely, I won’t make another attempt to listen to commercial country music- that which is played on radio- for a long while. I’ll stick to my music collection and listening to the music that now resonates with me- bluegrass (although cracks of blandness are starting to appear there as well), folk- whatever that is, Americana, and the various offshoots of what has become known as roots music. I’ll miss turning on the radio and hearing a simple country song that connects with images of my past or strikes a chord within my current emotional framework. I’ll have to work a little harder to establish those bonds with song. By now, I’m used to that and have found that the journey of finding new or old music that is meaningful is certainly a worthy endeavour. I’ll find it- I always have.

While my childhood and life aren’t nearly as sepia-toned and romantic as that he writes about, Antsy McClain pert near sums things up for me in his tune ”Captain Midnight.” Reflecting on late night radio djs who shaped his life- much like the CHED and K-97 djs did mine- McClain sings:

…As the radio played the soundtrack to my life. They cut a place deep In our hearts, following the stars and record charts, Connecting every song we loved to a special place in time.

Those who are currently listening to commercial country music, and have listened over the past fifteen or so years, have likely made those connections between the music of their time and their lives. Their connections are as significant as those I made. That I can’t stand much of current country music doesn’t matter. It is what it is. But for those folks, that is the music that is going to mean something- as hard as that is for me to comprehend. That it isn’t ‘real’ country music as I- and Tina- understand it doesn’t and won’t matter to them or to the industry.

As Lou- in a coherent moment- stated in an episode of Californication, “It’s not just the music- it’s how and when you hear it.”

Commercial country music is dead, at least to me! And I’m not too broken up about it.

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